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Namwali Serpell On 'The Old Drift'


"The Old Drift" is a real saga of a story that intertwines strangers into families, which we'll follow for a century, magic into everyday moments and the story of a nation, Zambia, the former Northern Rhodesia that's both caught up in and created in the currents of history. "The Old Drift" is the debut novel from Namwali Serpell, a Zambian writer who's won many prizes for fiction and been published in The New Yorker and McSweeney's. She now teaches at the University of California at Berkeley and joins us from KQED in San Francisco. Thanks so much for being with us.

NAMWALI SERPELL: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: The story that you tell opens with a fateful encounter in 1904 - a would-be photographer in a hotel lobby who stumbles. What begins to happen then?

SERPELL: So Percy Clark, who's the historical figure - a British photographer who is trying to make his fortunes in the middle of Africa - he accidentally reaches out for an Italian hotelier named Pietro Gavuzzi, who was, historically, the first hotel manager of the Victoria Falls Hotel. So Percy grabs Pietro's - reaches for his hat but pulls off a chunk of his hair. And this causes a small flurry of activity as Pietro's wife rushes to his side. Her daughter reaches out in anger and hits a young, African busboy, a Tonga man named N'gulube, who's also a historical figure who is mentioned in Percy Clark's memoir, "Autobiography Of An Old Drifter."

SIMON: I guess this is not a metaphorical reminder but a literal reminder that life is all about unexpected occurrences and consequences, isn't it?

SERPELL: Yes. A butterfly effect is one way to put it, where a small incident, a small slip, a small error, a small mistake can cause these much larger consequences as time passes. So this interaction between these three men ends up setting off a kind of chain of relation between their three families that slowly whirls and swirls down, like a vortex, until we reach the final descendants, which is a love triangle of three people and - who are also trying to start a political revolution in a future Zambia - in Zambia of the 2020s.

SIMON: I'm interested in some of your characters with magical qualities - for example, a woman enveloped in her own hair.

SERPELL: Yes. I was very enamored with the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in particular, Maria Luisa Bombal, who was a Chilean novelist who Borges called the mother of magical realism. And so I started writing about these women. One of them cries all the time because she's had her heart broken. But when I say all the time, I mean for 50 years continuously, which obviously has...

SERPELL: Ceaselessly, yes. Yeah.

SERPELL: Yeah - physical effects on her body. And then there's a character who goes blind - who, every once in a while, other characters believe they see eyes all over her body, like the Greek god Argus. So I was interested in these particular magical traits because they had to do with the body. They had to do with the way emotion can manifest in these physical ways. It was kind of literalizing some of the feelings that the three women have on the very surface of them.

SIMON: Among the many kind of impressions I think a reader will be left with is the amorphousness of borders. I mean, they're really kind of a recent invention, aren't they?

SERPELL: They are. And my country is a wonderful example of the arbitrariness of borders.

SIMON: Your mother had a story, didn't she?

SERPELL: Yeah. So she has this story about her home village in Mbala, in the north of the country. And the story was that when they drew the border of Zambia, it cut right through her village. And the chief was on one side - on the Tanzanian side. And he sent his sister to the Zambian side so that she could be the chieftainess. And my mother always said that that's why our tribe was so fiercely feminist - is because we had a chieftainess. And so this wonderful kind of consequence of the arbitrary decision of the British to slice right through a village.

SIMON: Makes you understand there's a thin line between immigrant and emigrant, isn't there?

SERPELL: Yes. It's a very interesting position to be in as an immigrant to the United States - now a citizen - who grew up in a country where the word immigrant meant people who were coming into Zambia, not people who were leaving, fleeing as refugees to go to the West. So my novel is about people coming to Zambia and staying - an Italian, an Indian, a British person. You know, they all arrive in Zambia and decide to settle there.

But I was interested in how the people who came and stayed integrated into Zambia and mixed and mingled literally through marriage and love - my parents being a prime example of that - and created these new kind of cultural forms and also this new understanding of Zambia as a nation. We - when they drew those arbitrary lines around my country, they kind of lassoed seven main tribes. We speak 72 different dialects in Zambia. And our first president, Kenneth Kaunda, came up with this mantra - one Zambia, one nation - to try and unify this country that had been kind of arbitrarily thrown together by outside forces. And that sense of one Zambia, one nation - sense of unity with difference within it - is something that is so important to the way that we conceive of ourselves at home.

SIMON: Having completed a novel this extensive, this beautifully convoluted, do you now just want to write a limerick?

SERPELL: (Laughter) I do. I - you know, the classic phrases a slim volume. I do have in mind that the next book will be cleaner, more streamlined and slim.

SIMON: "The Old Drift" - debut novel from Namwali Serpell. Thanks so much for being with us.

SERPELL: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF PETER GABRIEL SONG, "SECRET WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.